Ghafar Haidary is a large man, graceful in his movement. I notice his hands, large and elegant and likely able to snap my neck like a twig. His salt-and-pepper hair is closely cropped, his beard neatly trimmed. We sit on large rectangular cushions with throw pillows, me against one wall, him next to me against a wall whose windows overlook a large hill. The room is sparsely appointed, a phone and router, two newspapers on the floor, an extension cord and power strip, a light fixture with three bare, energy-saver bulbs.
Assef brings us tea and three dishes, pistachios, a crunchy sweet thing and roasted chick peas. I speak no Dari, Ghafar doesn’t speak English, so we gesture and do the best we can when Assef is out of the room. He is 65. I imagine he would make an excellent grandfather and teacher. As the tea is served, we begin.
First of all, my apologies for not speaking your language. It’s unforgivable. Before I leave Afghanistan, I hope to know some Dari. Has the United States done anything good here in the last 13 years?
Afghans want the United States to bring peace. But, after 13 years, there is no peace. People no longer want the US here.
We have spent a lot of money, and lost many of our people, and many Americans want to end the engagement.
You are right. Many US dollars were spent, but mostly money that doesn’t reach the people. The people in charge of the government use it for construction projects in Dubai and not for poor people. Whether the US stays or leaves doesn’t matter. We expected you to bring peace. There is no peace. I worked in a camp in my province and loved the Americans working there. But the US cannot bring peace to Afghanistan.
I fought in 1359 (Persian calendar year, starting March 1980) in the Parwan province jihad, with Republic Islamic Hezboah, Sheikh Asif Mohseni. I fought the Russians for two years. In one day in our province, the Russians killed 24,000 people. People got angry and started jihad. Jihad is a big thing for Afghan people. If the current situation does not bring peace, some people may want jihad again. The situation for poor people is very bad. They don’t have bread to eat.
He loosens his clothing to show me a wound on his breast from fighting the Soviets.
My friends lost their limbs, many died, these were bad memories. There was nothing positive about fighting. When we believe in what we are doing, even with no weapons, we fight and ask God to help us.
After two years of fighting, I went to Pakistan to bring in weapons for the mujehedin to fight the Russians, and stayed for five years. We lived in a tent. Every few months, we would bring weapons in. We traveled only at night to avoid government troops. Mohseni is Shia, and at that time Sayyef (another mujahedin leader) is in Pakistan and he wouldn’t let us bring weapons because Mohseni is Shia. Sayyaf people’s would attack us when we tried to bring weapons.
Is Pakistan a friend or a meddler in Afghanistan?
At first, Pakistan was a friend. After that, they are not a friend, they have their own goals.
The hill behind him is glowing with the fire of the sunset. Ghafar’s face is now in full relief. He has a strong nose, large and symmetrical. He speaks gently, but with moral authority and passion. Cable lines hang outside the window. I ask, Did you have a family at that time?
I was alone, my family was in Parvan province, but I had no wife or children.
There was no training. At first, there were no weapons. We fought with wooden weapons, whatever we had. Then our commanders taught us how to use weapons.
What is your most vivid memory from those times?
I was a commander with seven people working for me. We captured five Russians. My friend wanted to kill them. I said, no, they are human, we should save them, it’s their government that sent them to fight with us. I have no problem with them. I let four of them go and one became my friend. He came with me to Pakistan and became a Muslim. Eventually I lost track of him.
Was it a common practice to kill Russian prisoners at that time?
Yes, mujahedin killed them, because the Russian government put a price on the head of each fighter, so, generally, when we captured them, we killed them, or they would kill us if we were captured.
Was it a surprise to you that factional fighting between mujahedin resulted from the Soviet withdrawal?
Afghans celebrated, we were very happy, and then fighting started between Afghans. We were disappointed, and said the Russians should have stayed, because at least we were all united. Saddam Yusef of the family of (former king) Zia Shah tried to make peace. Some fighters tried to make a pact at that time.
When peace is made in the name of the mullahs, they are very professional. After all, we are a Muslim country and we welcomed their efforts to make peace and teach Islam. But after a few months, new dangers came, they create problems for the people of Afghanistan and we wondered why we trusted them. Mullah Omar became the president of Afghanistan, and many people left the country.
It’s 4 o’clock and the sun is setting the sun over his left shoulder. There are no lights on in the room, so it is filling with shade. I can see him better as the sun is not in my eyes. He pauses to take off his shoes, and brings the space heater closer. It’s not cold, but the heater warms the space.
I have bad memories of the Taliban. I am a Muslim. When they came, I was going to the mosque, and one of the Talibs came to me and asked why are you not praying. I said I am trying to get to the mosque. I think they are giving Islam a bad name. Taliban are uneducated. They try to tell us how we have to live. This is not Islam, they know nothing about Islam. Islam is peaceful.
I think that Americans were funding the Taliban. They want Islam to have a bad image so I think they are supporting the Taliban. Americans are good people, but not your government. We are the same, we are human. America is a danger to the world even though it talks about human rights. Islam is a religion of peace, we do not want to fight. Islam is about human rights. Americans say its aim is spreading peace around the world, but instead they spread danger, to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. We are Muslim, we want peace for all the people in the world. We like peace. We have no problem with peace. Islam is not a danger for other religions.
We have been talking for an hour and my crossed legs are aching, so I stretch and then cross them again. I ask, What does it mean to you to be a Muslim?
We pray five times a day. We study the Koran. We go to the mosque. It is the way of our lives. There are Muslims in America, they are Muslims all over the world living peacefully.
You opened by using the word jihad. The impression among some in the United States is that, these people are always talking about jihad, that Muslims like to war against non-believers and that Islam is a violent religion. I know that jihad was originally a spiritual term for an internal spiritual battle. That word is scary to people in the West.
Jihad is not for fighting. Jihad is something we do for God, when someone threatens you. When people live in peace, there is no problem. Why would Muslims fight if there was peace?
There is the idea of a caliphate, put forth by some in al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and other radical Islamists. Let’s face it: after the time of the prophet Mohammed, there was a lot of propagation of the faith and it wasn’t by handing out flowers. There was subjugation of people by the sword, the word jihad was probably used then. So there is an interpretation, that we want a caliphate and we are coming after YOU.
When the Russians left Afghanistan and the Taliban came, if the Americans would have come or Europeans, people would not have supported them. The Taliban at the time came from Kandahar in the name of Islam. But in 2001, Americans said come and fight with us, that Osama was responsible for 9/11. At that time, Afghans were ready to fight the Taliban.
Was there a sense that your country was being used to do something bad, that since Mullah Omar was sheltering al-Qaeda, the US had the right to attack Afghanistan?
When America took the Taliban out, we were very happy. We celebrated and were happy that America came here. We thought America would bring peace to Afghanistan. After all that, I ask you, why have the Taliban come back again?
Well, first of all, I think much of it is tribal, and there is support for the Taliban among Pashtuns on both sides of the border. The Taliban were badly decimated, so they fled to Pakistan. Over time, the Taliban as well as Pakistani Pashtuns, and al-Qaeda, and jihadi fighters from other countries wanted to regain power.
I accept what you say. At that time, all of Afghanistan was Talib. And you removed the Taliban overnight. Now after all these years, you are not able to take the Taliban out. The government of America is very dangerous for the people of Afghanistan. American troops in Kandahar province did very bad things to the people there for kicks. They don’t like your troops, your Army, but we like the people of America. I think America is funding the Taliban. I think America wants the world to hate Muslims and keep them away from Islam.
Why? I don’t see the logic in that. What would be the strategic reason for doing that? Do you have any evidence?
If America wants the Taliban out, in two or three hours, you have the power to take them out. But America doesn’t want to. I have been in Waziristan and the weapons come from America. And suicide bombers are all trained in Pakistan, at religious schools…
…yes, and then they come to Afghanistan.
I lost my child. All the money in the world won’t bring him back. Without peace in the world, we have nothing. If America leaves the country and all the people around the world live in peace, we can improve things, and everything is possible.